Harper” is a well-known name among Manitoba beef farmers with an interest in rotational grazing.
Brian and Sonja Harper, along with Thomas and Kristelle Harper, are the families behind Circle H Farms, a 500-acre, 80-head purebred cow-calf operation north of Brandon. Some may already be familiar with their fields, having attended a grazing workshop or field tour. Others may have seen their name in the headlines, talking about grazing experiments they’ve hosted on their land.
Now, the Harper family is making headlines again, this time as the winners of The Environmental Stewardship Award for Manitoba (TESA) presented by the Manitoba Beef Producers earlier this month.
“The Harper family has shown a tremendous commitment to environmental stewardship and are more than deserving of this award,” the producer group said. “They have demonstrated a willingness to try different approaches on their operation from rotational grazing to high stock density management or adaptive multi-paddock grazing.”
The Harpers’ winter practices include bale grazing, but it is the summer work that has claimed the attention. Their pasture has become a popular stop for grazing tours since they volunteered the land for a high stock density grazing experiment, funded by the Commission for Environmental Co-operation.
The Harpers had already been rotating their herd every four days between eight paddocks on the land. In 2014, however, the paddock system jumped to a series of half-acre paddocks, the Harpers bumped up stock to 37 cow-calf pairs plus eight heifers (a number that would jump to 44 pairs and 12 heifers by 2016) and were moving the animals twice a day.
“Back when we started, it was probably more for production, I guess,” Brian Harper said. “We started rotational grazing and we just saw that by resting the grass and coming back we were getting better production, but then we changed into the high density (grazing). We were seeing that we were improving the soil health.”
Soil improvement has been a boon for Circle H Farms, located as they are on the light, easily erodible and drought-vulnerable soils common in their area.
As cattle producers, it comes as no surprise that the farm has turned to perennial forages to help deal with those challenges. Other projects, however, such as the addition of 5,000 trees, made their mark on MBP during this year’s TESA competition, along with off-site watering, wells and solar watering systems.
The end results of the three-year grazing project were positive enough that Harper announced plans to continue working the system. Biodiversity and microbial activity in soil both jumped, organic matter was up to 4.3 per cent from 3.6 per cent and Solvita tests had trended from 26.6 to 71.7. Total organic carbon was lower, something some experts attributed to the increased microbial activity using up more fuel, but nutrient cycling was up and so was Harper’s bottom line.
Brian noted longer grazing seasons, cutting down on costs, more forage than his cattle could consume in a year and, perhaps more importantly, more beef coming off the pasture. By the end of 2017, he was taking 9,400 pounds more off the 130-acre pasture than 2014, according to his TESA application.
“It gets easier every year,” he said.
Harper hopes that some of those numbers will help give his farm an edge when he presents his case at the national TESA competition in Ontario this summer.
“We have some actual numerical data and we’ll definitely work that into the presentation, like increased organic matter,” he said. “We’ve just got some numbers on the improvements that we’ve made and I think that’s what’s drawing a lot of interest.”
Circle H Farms will make its bid at the national TESA competition this summer, during the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association semi-annual meeting in London, Ont.
Outside of the competition itself, Harper says he’s looking forward to making ties with other producers who share similar goals as him.
On the farm, Harper says he plans to change things up this year.
“We’re trying to be conscious enough to not get stuck in a pattern, so some years we’re going t
so hit it harder and at different times and then other years we’ll have a lower density. It’s just the change. Be disruptive,” he said.
Harper’s mentoring efforts may also win him points. The Brandon-area producer says he never expected to be approached for advice when he first turned away from conventional management.
In the course of the experiment and a growing number of field tours later, however, he has found himself thrust into the role. More than half a dozen farmers call each year to ask about his grazing system and what they can do on their own operations, he says. Locally, he has helped at least one producer set up a similar system to his own.
“I’ve got people reaching out to me through Facebook, etc., even in Quebec, wondering what they should do or what they should try to try and improve the health of their land. And, there again, the focus is to increase production,” he said.
Harper still encourages other farmers to contact him with any questions on his farm or how implementing similar grazing systems and can be reached through the Circle H Farms Facebook page or through email at [email protected].